A Virtual Art Collection from various sources provides insights into aspects of medieval piety.
Facts and Photos
Marian piety was particularly strong in the Middle Ages. In this period of Christendom, with no separation between "the sacred" and "the secular," religious art, particularly Marian works, adorned all types of buildings. Photo A is not the entrance to a church dedicated to the Blessed Mother, but is the entrance to the Rathaus–or town hall–in Aachen, built in the 14th century. Since the cathedral was dedicated to her, Mary was the patron saint of the city. Naturally her statue would adorn the entrance to city hall.
Sharing honors with his mother on public buildings was Jesus. Photo B shows the crucified Christ with the women at the foot of the cross. This work is on the Vogelstor (Bird's Gate), one of the city gates in Augsburg built in the 15th century.
Pilgrimages and relics were important aspects of medieval piety. Aachen was a major pilgrimage site because of the priceless relics it housed since the time of Charlemagne (+814). In photo C of the Aachen cathedral one can see the covered walkway or porch connecting the dome and tower. From this high vantage point the precious relics of Aachen were shown to the pilgrims gathered on the plaza below. Its famous relics from the time of Charlemagne were first shown in 1312, and the popularity of Aachen as a place of pilgrimage necessitated the expansion of the church by 1355.
In 799 the Patriarch of Jerusalem presented to Charlemagne four textile relics, said to be pieces from Jesus' swaddling clothes, from the loincloth worn at his crucifixion, from the belt of Mary wore at Jesus' birth, and from the decapitation cloth of John the Baptist. Photo D is the reliquary with the loincloth of Jesus. The relic itself is encased in crystal in the lower half of the reliquary. When shown to the crowds, the sunlight would reflect off the crystal and create a luminous effect. The relic is on display today in the Treasury of Aachen Cathedral.
The most common relics were bones of saints. While early reliquaries (for bones or other types of relics) were fully enclosed boxes with no view of the contents, by the Middle Ages they had evolved to show the precious item. Photo E is a tall reliquary (it stands three to four feet high), displaying a large bone of an (unknown to me) saint. The reliquary is located in a side chapel in the Saints Ulrich and Afra Church in Augsburg. While to modern sensibilities reverencing human bones seems weird and macabre, it can be helpful to remember that venerating the remains of saints developed early in the life of the church and was a witness to the central Christian belief in the resurrection of the body.
The honoring of saints, a practice that had obscured the life and work of Jesus Christ by the time of the Reformation, also originated in the early church, especially with martyrs. The veneration of a saint started as a local celebration in the saint's home town or territory. An example of the making of a local saint in the medieval period is St. Elizabeth of Thuringia. A princess from Hungary who was married at age 14 to Ludwig IV, Landgrave of Thuringia, she was attracted to monastic ideas, especially those of the Franciscans. Known for her care of the sick and poor, she renounced the world completely after the death of her husband in the Crusade in 1227. Photo F is an early 20th century mosaic of her in the Wartburg castle, where she had lived. Only 24 when she died in 1231, the holiness of her life was an inspiration to many and numerous miracles were attributed to her. She was canonized only 4 years later and her remains rested in the church bearing her name in Marburg until they were removed by Philip of Hesse, a leader of the Reformation among political rulers, in 1539.
Another important aspect of medieval piety was the Mass, with a strong emphasis on the real presence of Christ in the sacrament. This carved altarpiece from ca. 1525 highlights this emphasis (Photo G). The following description is quoted from A Little Guide to the Treasury of Aachen Cathedral. "The legend of the Mass of Pope Gregory is depicted, which was very popular in the 15th and 16th centuries [and] . . . goes back to a medieval legend: during a mass celebrated by Pope Gregory I [+604], one of the attendants expresses his doubts about the actual transubstantiation of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. Gregory then asks God for a sign, whereupon Christ appears on the altar as the Man of Sorrows. As evidence for the Eucharist, blood begins to pour from the wound in Christ's chest into the chalice on the altar" (29).
Parallel to the growing emphasis in the Middle Ages on the real presence of Christ in the eucharistic elements was a declining emphasis on reception of the sacrament. The laity attended the mass regularly, but generally only received communion once a year. However, the growing desire by the laity to see the host led to its elevation by the priest at in the early 13th century during the singing of the Sanctus in the communion liturgy.
The monstrance, a vessel for displaying the consecrated host, developed along the same lines as reliquaries, and made veneration outside of the mass common. Photo H, a monstrance on display in the Treasury at Aachen, dates from the early 16th century and may have been a gift to the cathedral by Emperor Charles V on the occasion of his coronation there in 1519. The dark circle in the center held the consecrated host. A monstrance could be used to display the host in a side chapel for veneration, or could be carried in an outdoor procession for veneration by the crowds, such as on the feast of Corpus Christi.
Religious processions were another important aspect of medieval life. Wolfram of Erfurt, a single-cast, light-bearing, bronze statue dated ca. 1160 (photo I) was used in religious processions. Today this masterpiece can be viewed in the Erfurt cathedral.
The Reformation brought changes in piety, as two altar pieces demonstrate. In the pre-Reformation triptych dating from ca. 1515/20 (on display in the Treasury of Aachen Cathedral), the center panel depicts the only crucifixion–and does so in such a way to emphasize judgment. The "good" are gathered on the left side (Christ's right side) with the penitent thief, whose soul is being received in heaven by angels. On the right side of the panel (which is Christ's left hand, as in Matthew 25) are the "wicked," along with the impenitent thief who soul is carried away by demons.
The panel on the left side depicts three scenes (photo J); in the foreground and most prominent by size is the descent from the cross, in the middle on the far left is the entombing of Christ, and slightly above and to the right, on a smaller scale from the foreground figure, is the resurrected Christ appearing to Mary. (To enlarge picture, click on it once.)
In contrast is the triptych by Reformation artist Lucas Cranach, completed by his son in 1555 and on display at Saints Peter and Paul Church in Weimar (photo K, above). First of all the center panel includes both the crucified and risen Christ on the same scale. Secondly, the whole panel emphasizes not judgment, as the first one does, but redemption. The blood from the crucified Christ spurts to the background, where the children of Israel are being saved from the fiery serpents by looking at the bronze serpent lifted up on Moses' staff. Christ's redemptive work reaches back in time to all who had faith in God's promise of salvation. The risen Christ subdues death under one foot and Satan under the other. On the right stands Martin Luther, pointing to the open Bible in his hand–to the Word which proclaims this crucified and risen Christ and calls all to faith in him.